Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:13-18). 

What I’m about to write will be perceived by some as hyper-critical or a nitpicking over semantics but I don’t believe this is the case (to read a more positive assessment of a church experience please refer to my post “Serving in Never Small” dated 5/5/10). These things are written with a soft, but sad, heart. However, I don’t believe we can be too careful with the way we use language when speaking of the things of God. Our choice of words is usually an indication of the attitudes of our heart and our belief system. None of what I’m about to say is intended to judge the reality or genuineness of anyone’s faith. This is merely a snapshot of a potentially deadly trend that has become pervasive in the Western 21st century institutional church. 

I recently attended a large gathering at an institutional church. Being a little late, I was able to catch only the latter part of the “worship” piece of the agenda. I immediately sensed the raw enthusiasm (maybe a euphemism for emotionalism) during the music time and the sermon delivery confirmed this. Although the pastor had an earned doctorate from a recognized seminary, he was more a “preacher” than a “teacher”. The Biblical exposition was sound but it was more animated than deep (I call this “Southern Baptist shallow”…sorry -:). The pastor spoke more of himself (the tragic modern preaching tool of telling personal, motivational stories instead of expounding the Word) than he did of Jesus. He often raised his voice to emphasize the weaker points. Now don’t get me wrong here: everyone there reeked with sincerity and I do not consider myself superior (probably just the opposite) to any of those folks, the pastor included. 

But it all came together for me when I suddenly realized that this sermon was one in a series called, “Making our Church Great”. OK, let’s park here for a moment and ask a couple of pivotal questions. Who is “making” the church? And whose church is it? Now Linden, you might ask, aren’t you getting a little sensitive here (or just exaggerating) over the use of language? Well, maybe I am. And that is because “we” don’t make the church and it is not “ours” ( I dare you to find the phrase “our church” in any major translation of the Bible). Jesus is building His church! It’s not us, it is Him. It is not ours, it is His. And that’s where I believe the “Americanized church” has gone so dangerously wrong. Mathew 16:13-18 makes one thing crystal clear: the church is about Jesus – the profession of Him, God’s initiation of that profession, and His ownership of His body, all those that sincerely profess Him – and not us. 

Christ is the rightful ruler over His church because He purchased it with His precious blood: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Therefore, Colossians 1:18 tells us that Jesus has been rightly appointed the head of His body, which is the church. And this is not an honorary or traditional title. He is Lord over His church whether we fully see this manifestation in the visible church’s fruit, mannerisms, and organization. Could our lack of Spirit-manifested fruit be because those professing to be “the called out ones” often haven’t surrendered to His rule over our gatherings?  Could this be because we have cultivated a man-centered culture based upon personalities and programs? 

Thankfully, often we see God’s sovereign rule displayed despite the institutional church and its methodologies! As the writer of Hebrews expresses it, “putting everything in subjection under his feet, now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8). So, despite our humanistic and self-righteous efforts to usurp ownership of His church by human effort, mechanisms, persuasion, and political power, He is the one “building [His] church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18). 

All of this begs some critical questions. Have we surrendered to His preeminence over the church? Is the gathering of believers we are associated with united under Jesus’ leadership, headship, and Lordship over them in their adoration and activities as His body? Do our gatherings experience the organic, dynamic, and vital presence and direction of our preeminent Savior? This is His rightful place – with all things under Him and Him ruling over all things! And God has dictated this: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22).